Xi Jinping's Choice
LONDON – For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the initial response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine must have seemed a no-brainer. It is almost inconceivable that these two self-proclaimed kindred spirits had not discussed Putin’s invasion plans at their early February meeting in Beijing, just before the start of the Winter Olympics. After all, had Putin duped Xi, what would that tell Xi about the Kremlin’s dependability as an ally, and what would it say about Xi’s diplomatic skills?
All that Putin had to do in return for Xi’s connivance, it seems, was to postpone sending his tanks into Ukraine until the Beijing Games were over. Russian bombs and rockets thus began blasting Ukraine’s cities and people four days after the curtain came down on the spectacle in China, and when the United Nations Security Council met shortly afterward, Xi kept his side of the bargain: China abstained on the vote to censure Russia.
At the UN and since, China has argued that Russia was not guilty of an “invasion,” a word apparently freighted with suggestions that Russia had committed an international crime. Nonetheless, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dug out of China’s diplomatic toolbox the principle of peaceful coexistence that it embraced in 1955, telling us that China always insisted on national sovereignty and non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. That, he added, of course included Ukraine, a country with which China had a strong trading relationship (and which provided the ship that China transformed into its first aircraft carrier). China also included Ukraine in its Belt and Road Initiative, which finances large-scale infrastructure investment in member countries.
The outcome of Russia’s “non-invasion” has so far not been what Putin had probably promised Xi at their February meeting, when the two leaders had gone out of their way to prove that they were, as an old Chinese saying puts it, as close as lips and teeth. In Ukraine, Putin has killed, maimed, and destroyed, but he has failed to secure a swift victory.
The world, remembering earlier Russian-directed carnage in Grozny and Aleppo, knows all too well that Putin is a master at murderous mayhem. But although many Ukrainians have died defending their homeland, there have also been thousands of Russian casualties – many of them young conscripts who were plainly conned into thinking they would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberators.
So, what sort of “victory,” if any, awaits Putin? In the second century BCE, the Roman Republic fought a war against its North African rival Carthage with the stated objective of destroying the city. The Romans, with whom I certainly do not seek to compare Putin, were as good as their word, reducing Carthage to rubble. They behaved the same way elsewhere, including in Scotland. The great historian Tacitus quoted a Caledonian chieftain who opposed Rome’s legions as saying, “They slaughter and they steal […] And where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”
If Ukraine suffers a similar fate, as Putin seemingly intends, will the surviving Ukrainians be content to live in a Kremlin-created wasteland as happy Russian serfs? The consequences for Putin – and, alas, for Russia – also will be awful, and they will not be much better for those seen to be helping the Kremlin or even just keeping their heads down and avoiding any criticism of Russia’s new czar. It would be more than embarrassing if allegations that China has been considering selling arms to Russia to help its war effort turned out to be true.
Plainly, some Chinese communists have begun to realize the difficulty of the diplomatic tightrope that Xi’s alliance with Putin is making them walk. Specifically, how can Chinese policymakers keep their friend in the Kremlin happy without demonstrating to the world that they are accomplices to war crimes? This balancing act raises serious doubts about China’s ability to pose as the world’s peacemaker for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, while China may be able to buy Russian gas and oil at a bargain because Putin can no longer sell it to the West, the Chinese probably will not be well served by a global economy splintered and distorted by sanctions. Then there is Taiwan. Will any potential Chinese invasion of the island look easier for Xi now that Western democracies have learned the lessons of their earlier failure to confront Putin?
An influential Shanghai-based academic commentator on international affairs, Hu Wei, recently advanced a cautionary argument that has been circulated widely in Chinese-language publications. In his commentary, which is unlikely to have been published without the approval of some of Xi’s senior courtiers, Hu wondered how Chinese communists would react if the war escalated beyond Ukraine, or if Russia was clearly defeated.
How, Hu asked, would China respond to a revival of US leadership of a more united West and to the reinvigoration of the international agreements and organizations that China dislikes? What is the likelihood that a new Iron Curtain emerges, cutting off Russia and China from the world’s democracies? How could China avoid isolation? It would, Hu concluded, “not only be encircled militarily but also challenged by Western values and systems.”
For Hu, the answer for China’s leaders is simple. They should wash their hands of the relationship with Putin, which Wang described only recently as “ironclad” and Xi previously called “better than an alliance.”
The problem for China’s leaders, which they must now realize, is that one must be careful about the company one keeps. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not produce more grain to feed the Chinese after the poor harvest predicted for their country this year. Nor will it replace the markets that China now risks losing in Europe and elsewhere because of its perceived closeness to the Kremlin. Instead, Putin’s war risks irreparably damaging China’s global image and its prospects of being a potential leader in international affairs.
Xi cannot fudge the issue indefinitely. Is China a collaborator and accomplice in Putin’s terrible crime, or can it become a responsible stakeholder in a peaceful and prosperous world?
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.
This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.
Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.
Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.